An expert in classical Chinese once wrote that ancient texts occasionally feature characters that appear once, and only once, in the existing literature. The linguistic term for such words or characters is hapax legomenon. Because of this uniqueness, we are told, it is not possible to know precisely the meaning of a hapax character. A scholar, for example, might be confronted by a sentence that reads, “The chariot moved across the battlefield with the furious speed of an X.” One translator, using his best informed guess, might render X as meaning such-and-such; and another translator might render X as something else. But the truth is that we can never know precisely what the meaning of the character X is. It is unique. As a hapax legomenon, it will remain forever cloaked in mystery.
Men can also be hapax figures. They disturb the convenience of our lazy taxonomies by refusing to be pidgeon-holed as one thing or another. Such men defy easy categorization; they can never precisely be pinned down to our butterfly-board. Just such a character brimming with contradictions was German writer Ernst Jünger. Impassioned warrior, biologist, writer, philosopher, mystic, nationalist, and believer in psychedelic drugs, Jünger stands alone among twentieth century writers, laughing at our attempts to fit him into any one box.
He was born in Heidelberg in 1895 and had a reasonably comfortable middle-class upbringing. Running away from home in 1913 to join the French Foreign Legion, he served briefly in North Africa, after which his father brought him home. Still lusting for combat, he volunteered for the Kaiser’s army in 1914 and served with great distinction on the western front as an infantry officer and storm trooper. He received the Iron Cross First Class in 1917, and finally Imperial Germany’s highest military decoration, the fabled “Blue Max” (the Pour le Merite) at the age of 23 in 1918. Wounded many times during night patrols and trench raids, Jünger found the war to be a supremely transcendent experience, a distillation of the struggle of life, and the core of masculine identity.
Trench raider: Jünger was intimately acquainted with scenes such as this
Throughout the war, Jünger kept a private diary of his experiences, and these scattered thoughts formed the nucleus of a book which he self-published in 1920 under the title In Stahlgewittern. Appearing in English under the martial title Storm of Steel, the memoir catapulted Jünger to prominence. There is nothing like it in all war literature. It deserves close examination on our part. As a hospital orderly once told Jünger philosophically while dressing one of his wounds: habent sua fata libelli et balli (“books and bullets have their own destinies.”)
The first thing that strikes us in Storm of Steel is the tone: here there is no morose hand-wringing as one might find in the weepy writings of Erich Maria Remarque, Siegfried Sassoon, or Robert Graves; none of the clinical detachment of Adolf Von Schell’s dry and lifeless Battle Leadership; and none of the pacifist sniveling that mars some of the work of Ernest Hemingway. Instead, we are thrown right into the thick of the action, swept up with Jünger in the exhilaration of proximity to instant death, as bombs burst all around us and a determined enemy is waiting beyond the lip of our trench to cut our throats.
Jünger with the coveted “Blue Max” decoration, which he received in 1918
The Greek philosopher Heracleitus believed that Fire was the essential force that moved the world; and under the spell of Jünger’s prose, we actually come to believe this to be so. We are stupefied by the lyric poetry of flame, fist, and iron, as the earth trembles beneath our feet during artillery bombardments; and we huddle with Jünger in soggy, putrid shell holes, waiting for the opportunity to plunge a dagger into a British Tommy’s gut. Jünger takes it all in with the wry humor and determination of a true combat soldier, never boring us with mealy-mouthed questions about the war’s origins and purpose; for him, the war is a mystical experience, bringing an elevated awareness of the agonies and joys of life. Combat and pain are the quintessence of life. There is only survival in the present moment, and the supreme experience of hunting down and killing the enemy. Among countless memorable passages, the following will give a flavor of the whole:
The trench was appalling, choked with seriously wounded and dying men. A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. And the fresh shells came down all the time.
Jünger’s prose approaches the beauty of Virgilian hexameters with this sentence, describing the German response to an attack by French aircraft:
The anti-aircraft guns threaded long fleecy lines through the air, and whistling splinters pinged into the tilth.
About the thrill of marauding by night into enemy lines, Jünger has this to say:
These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterably menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow bursts; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape.
Describing the ghastly contradictions of combat, he notes ironically:
We started to dig trenches right across the village, and erected new walls near the most dangerous places. In the neglected gardens, the berries were ripe, and tasted all the sweeter because of the bullets flying around us as we ate them.
And here, Jünger dispatches an enemy soldier with emotionless precision:
I spotted a British soldier breaking cover behind the third enemy line, the khaki uniform clearly visible against the sky. I grabbed the nearest sentry’s rifle, set the sights to six hundred, aimed quickly, just in front of the man’s head, and fired. He took another three steps, then collapsed onto his back, as though his legs had been taken away from him, flapped his arms once or twice, and then rolled into a shell-crater, where though the binoculars we could see his brown sleeves shining for a long time yet.
Jünger in his later years: despite the suit, every inch a fighter
After the war, Jünger remade himself as a biologist and entomologist, although insects were never quite as appealing as combat. By his own admission, he “hated democracy” and parliamentarianism, and was a conservative nationalist; yet to his credit, he also despised fascism and National Socialism. He refused a seat in Hitler’s Reichstag in 1933, forbade his writings to appear in Nazi publications, and was careful to distance himself from any endorsement of Hitler. He was mobilized for military service in the Second World War, but spent the war years mostly in occupation duty in Paris.
Jünger remained a committed individualist, never wanting to be beholden to anyone. After 1945, he was briefly banned from publishing for his refusal to kow-tow to the Allied occupation authorities. He continued to write, however, eventually turning out more than fifty titles. In the postwar years, his uniqueness shone forth in all its intensity. In his treatise On Pain, he argued that the experience of pain, and man’s capacity to deal with it, was the central question of the human condition in the modern era. More bizarre was his enthusiasm for hallucinatory drugs: his later writings (e.g., Approaches, appearing in 1970) chronicle his dalliances with cocaine, hashish, and LSD. He was also an adherent of the “magical realism” movement, a literary school which held that magical or fantastic qualities permeate the experience of ordinary life. We cannot be sure he was wrong.
Actually, Jünger led a charmed life, outlasting nearly everyone. Gradually his literary star rose to prominence; by the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of Germany’s most respected writers. In 1984, he, along with the presidents of France and Germany, dedicated a battlefield memorial at Verdun and publicly condemned militarism. Yet he never regretted or apologized for anything he ever wrote, proudly proclaiming his belief in the power of the individual over that of the mechanized state. He died in 1998 at the age of 102.
German Idealism, which had begun with Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, had seemed almost a spent force until the advent of Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. In many ways, he was the final, explosive culmination of the stubborn Idealist strain in German thought, a thread that thankfully has not quite yet died out. But Jünger is stranger still; his body of work synthesizes so many disparate strands that he really is in a class by himself.
As a lyric poet of total war, and as an apostle of the cathartic power of combat, he remains unsurpassed. He is a Teutonic hapax legomenon, a character standing alone, whose true meaning we can only guess at.
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